sPancakes are everywhere — especially on TV. Thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Apple TV+, these are boom times for fans of spy thrillers. But it’s not just fans, viewers also include actual secret agents whose roles range from gathering intelligence to recruiting spies for a living. And sometimes what they see on screen leaves them in awe.
The main characters in a new segment of spyware range from losers and lawyers to real-life ghosts. In the Apple TV+ hit Slow Horses, secret agents are blunders relegated to the MI5 administrative purgatory. In the ITVX drama A Spy Between Friends, the intelligence officers are Cambridge alumnus liars in smart tailored suits. And in the Prime Video movie, Jack Ryan, CIA officials include exorcists and Jason Bourne clones.
All of these roles are ones that senior US national security and intelligence experts constantly find fault with. “I’m hard pressed,” former CIA analyst Gail Helt laments, “to come up with a show that gets him even in the ballpark in terms of what CIA officers do.”
If these shows really let us in, as she and other insiders assure, they’ll also make sure viewers understand the unappealing side of the business — how mind-numbingly pedestrian it can be.
“My relationship with programs focused on law enforcement and intelligence agencies is a love/hate relationship,” says former FBI Special Agent Jeff Cortez. “I love it when they do it right, and I hate when they get it wrong. I mean right and wrong in terms of being real rather than factual. It’s realistic to spend 90-95% of the show watching agency officials do paperwork. Nobody wants to see that. I want to I see the other 5-10% of the job as exciting.”
This isn’t a blanket criticism of the entire genre, especially considering that the remakes include everything from big-budget action flicks (Netflix’s The Recruit) to headline-grabbing dramas of real-life events (Litvinenko, A Spy Among Friends) that involve a degree greater than right. Some programs may get it completely wrong, while others will get it… well, less wrong. That is the assessment of John Seaver, who retired in 2014 after 28 years with the CIA’s National Clandestine Service. Only a few shows get our stamp of approval. “While no movie or show is quite right, The Office captures the give-and-take between headquarters and the field, and The Americans and The Spy both give a good sense of street crafts and living under the hood,” he says.
For Cortese, it is particularly irritating when the protagonists fail to handle firearms properly – one of the most common complaints. “Characters often make the mistake of putting their finger on the trigger while emptying the chamber, or even just holding the gun,” he says. “In real life, your finger is along the barrel and you don’t touch the trigger until you plan to press it. That’s probably the single most annoying thing for those of us in the business. We always notice this.”
Other common complaints from those in the know include: too much sex, too many gunfights, and the often exaggerated abilities of agents and officers. They also point out that real-life cases take much longer than TV makers squeeze into the confines of a half-hour or hour-long show.
For this reason, some veterans avoid this type altogether. Tracy Walder is a former FBI Special Agent and covert operations expert for five years at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center – where she took aliases and visited black sites to interrogate captured terrorists. “I made it through one episode of Homeland and I just can’t watch it anymore,” she says. “The misleading thing is that our abilities are seen as omniscient. They are definitely not. Things take time. It could mean years.”
She adds that while the work can be “hot” and exciting, most of it is the mundane type of cubicle report writing. It’s also generally a covert business, so an agent who frequently gets caught up in gunfights – the kind on TV – is doing something wrong.
“We carry weapons in certain areas of operations, but that’s not the norm,” Walder says. “We’re not law enforcement. So, it’s really not part of the job. Yes, we have weapons training and I got it in some of the countries I’ve served in, but that’s it. Obviously, as an FBI agent, I’ve been tolerating all along.” .
However, there are some former intelligence professionals, like former CIA analyst turned novelist David McCloskey and Christina Helsberg (a veteran of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations), who choose to enjoy spyware as much as the unsuspecting public does. Sometimes, even shadow warriors don’t mind watching something stupid and fun – or something close to the mark.
McCloskey says, “The office does a wonderful job of capturing the human element and idiosyncrasies of the intelligence business, particularly the bureaucracy and recurring tension between the field and headquarters.
“The Little Drummer Girl excels at showing the long, slow burn-out of intelligence-gathering operations in progress. It also removes the frustrating lack of operational and ethical clarity that can characterize a business.”
Adds Helsberg, whose CIA career included writing intelligence assessments for the White House, “With any spy thriller, there’s often an element of suspension of disbelief, especially if you’ve worked in espionage. At the end of the day, even we like to entertain.” .
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